Sugar Skulls, Chocolate and Mezcal

Surrounded by dimly lit candles I kneel down beside an old grave to pay my respects, the site is marked with carefully placed bright orange Marigold flowers, candy offerings, and fruit. A young man leans in out of the darkness and offers me a shot of Mezcal in a plastic shot glass, I smile and accept. Salud!

 Normally I wouldn’t suggest drinking shots with a stranger at night in a cemetery but this isn’t just any cemetery; I am in the old section of the Xoxocotlan cemetery celebrating the Day of the Dead festival in Oaxaca, Mexico.

The carnival-like atmosphere is contagious at Xoxo (pronounced ho-ho)! The streets outside the cemetery are filled with live bands, vendors selling mexican favorites, sand art displays and costumed party-goers. I join in by ordering a massive foot-long tortilla stuffed with queso, grilled vegetables, beans and guacamole. To wash it down- I order a cervasa fria!

Every year during the period between October 31st -November 2nd, visitors and locals alike flock to Oaxaca Mexico to attend the colorful Dia de los Muertos festival.  The events range from lively parades (comparsa’s), construction of massive altars for the dead, shopping for decorations at the local markets, to of course the all-night graveyard vigil in xoxo cemetery.

Although this holiday emphasizes remembering and honoring the dead, don’t expect this to be a sad or somber event. This is a fun festive celebration meant to remember the dead, and also to invite them back into our lives once again before they sadly have to depart.

Giant altars for the deceased are constructed using traditional items (ofrendas) that the dead may have enjoyed while alive. Mezcal, cigarettes, chocolate, fruit, and candies are some of the items typically placed on the altar for the dead to enjoy.

Cempasuchitl or bright orange marigold flowers; coined flor de muerto or flower of the dead, can be seen on every altar and grave not to mention spilling out from many table and carts at the markets.   

Fragrant Copal incense is commonly burned in homes and businesses to welcome and purify the souls of the dead. 

Pan de muerto is placed on altars and also eaten during the week of and after the festival. Pan de muerto (bread for the dead) are big round loaves of freshly baked bread decorated with the faces of skulls or jesus and flower designs.

These colorful and delicious holiday treats are seen lining the shelves and stands of the local markets.

 For a delicious treat visit the Benito Juarez market, near the main square (zocalo) for a hot chocolate and a side of mini pan de muerto.  

Also at the market, you will find dozens of colorful and decorative sugar and chocolate skull candies.

These candies are meant to be placed on altars and graves rather than as snacks. They make great inexpensive souvenirs to take home for friends and family.  

Visit the  to 20 de Noviembre to watch the kids get ready for the kids parade. Most of the parades, live music, and activities take part in the main Zocalo.   

Locals gather in the main square to construct massive sand art displays that depict various scenes and images of Dia de los Muertos.  Vistors can join in the festivities or relax and watch from one of the surrounding cafes and restaurants that line the perimeter of the Zocalo. 

The most fascinating event is by far the all night vigil at the xoxo cemtery on October 31st.

To read my full travel guide for Oaxaca’s Dia de los Muertos festival- please visit my published article at: 

Sugar skulls, marigolds, and mezcal; a guide to navigating the Dia de los Muertos or Day of the Dead festival in Oaxaca, Mexico.

Read more at Suite101: A Guide to the Dia de los Muertos Festival in Oaxaca, Mexico.

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